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The Mental Wear and Tear of DEI Work

Across the nation, organizations are taking on the challenge of organizational development in the area of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). It’s complex, evolving, and layered work and isn’t often successfully done without the help of expert consultants and staff. Let’s take a look at what these Black women DEI consultants on the front lines have to say about different aspects of this important work. Whether you’re a new DEI consultant seeking guidance on how to have the greatest impact, or a mainstream organization looking to educate yourself on what effective and courageous organizational leadership looks like in this work, the interviews below can be informative and enlightening.

 

  1. Who is an ideal client for DEI work? How do you know that they’re ready and a good fit for the work?

“Our process for leading clients through DEI work is relationship-oriented, and we start with looking internally at who the people at the table are. So for us, we accept clients who understand that this is a process, a long-term relationship, that is deeply personal and reflective. We do not focus externally, or on “fixing” “those people”; instead, we focus on leading our partners through a process of understanding who they are – how they came to be raced, gendered, and classed, and how those experiences of either privilege or oppression have formed their view of the world, the decisions they make, and how they interact with others. Then we start the process of examining policy and practice through these new lenses they have developed.” –Dr. Shelley D. Zion, Rowan University College of Education

 

“Our organization recognizes that going into conversation, reflection, partnership, and perspective of diversity, equity, and inclusivity requires a commitment to ‘FOREVER WORK.’  Oftentimes, individuals and organizations approach DEI work as a trend, which it definitely is not. So we find that the ideal client is looking for transformative outcomes.  When we identify a potential client, we do an assessment with their leadership team (decision-makers). We offer them a series of exercises that help them to not only understand and define the work that is needed in their lives and in the organization, but that also require them to take the time to reflect on what is at risk if they do not commit to this work. This process inevitably helps us to assess their culture, and identify their commitment and their connection with this process.” –MiDian Z. Holmes Luckett, 8PM Consulting

 

  1. What are the non-negotiables that you set when taking on a DEI client?

“We don’t negotiate our pricing, which has been based on our astute knowledge of how much goes into the execution of our work. If a potential client begins to challenge our pricing, then we give them the opportunity to learn about the gravity and magnitude of the work and we also own that we may not be the firm they will be able to work with. We also do not knowingly engage with clients who have no intention to do the work. Very early on in the process, we begin to introduce performance scales. These scales help our clients interpret their work as either being performative, compliance-related, or strategic.” –Dwinita Mosby Tyler, The Equity Project 

 

  1. How do you know when a project request is exploitative or inappropriate?  

“Oftentimes, organizations will want to low-ball Black women for DEI services. They will often solicit services at no cost — framing it as “committee service” or similar terms — or for an extraordinarily low price. To counter this, have a strategically set price for your work and don’t deviate from it. If places can afford to pay Robin Diangelo $14K for a talk, then they can pay you your worth. The next way to know that a project is exploitative is by looking at the scope of the work that they’re asking for. For example, if an organization approaches you with a very broad and undefined project, odds are that they will try to take advantage of your time. In those cases, it is extremely important to narrow down the focus, specify exactly what work you’ll be doing, and have a contract that articulates exactly what the parameters are. If an organization is reluctant to sign a contract, run.” –Lisa Xochitl Vallejos, Ph.D., Dr. Lisa Xochitl Vallejos Consulting

 

“Because our intake process is thorough, we can usually deduce through our line of questioning if the potential client has good intentions. One of our assets, too, is that our team is made up of many types of leaders, with experience at the executive level, in HR, and in project management. Because of those types of experiences we can draw from, it is easier for us to identify when requests are exploitative, inappropriate, or are at risk of becoming so.”–Dwinita Mosby Tyler, The Equity Project 

 

“I know that a project request is exploitive and inappropriate when the person who’s seeking to hire me is trying to change my message in this work and trying to change how I deliver my message. It’s really inappropriate – and it reflects White superiority and privilege.  For the most part, anything that takes me out of my integrity is how I know that it’s inappropriate for me as a project request. It’s important that I stay true to myself and true to my own approach and theory in this work. And my approach and my theory to this work is not for everybody, and that’s okay. This work is very personal. It’s very emotional. And it’s critical to be doing projects with clients that respect who I am, and how I deliver what I do. I’ve learned this the hard way because I’ve tried to bend or mold and be something to the client that they want me to be often because I was feeling that I needed to do that in order to get work or get hired. As soon as I stopped doing that and stayed even more true to myself, I got even more work. It’s so true that the more we show up as our natural selves bringing our natural gifts, opportunities will rise to meet us.” Tovi C. Scruggs-Hussein, Tici’ess

 

  1. What are some unrealistic expectations that clients have about doing DEI work?

“Too often, clients assume that we have a magical list of things they can do to ‘fix’ the issues they are seeing and they do not understand that those issues are rooted in historical, institutionalized systems of oppression that we have all, to some degree, internalized. They often think they just need to change small procedural items, rather than focusing on developing authentic relationships and exploring the ways in which we all contribute both to problems and solutions.” –Dr. Shelley D. Zion, Rowan University College of Education

 

“Because the work isn’t cookie-cutter, we make it our priority to meet clients where they are when they come to us.  That being said, there is an endless combination of expectations that can come to unfold, and unfortunately the reality is that a lot of these expectations are unrealistic.  What we have seen most often is that privileged communities tend to have an expectation that it is their authority and presence that is going to create impact.  They have a false sense of power and assume that they have all the answers, so they want to control the narrative. Our organization has designed curriculum and experiences (through the method of psychological safety and role definition) that eliminate this illusion at the pass.  We uplift the voices of the experts in the room, and those voices are typically the ones that are not being leveraged or are  ignored completely prior to our intervention.” –MiDian Z. Holmes Luckett, 8PM Consulting

 

“There are a few unrealistic expectations that I commonly see. Clients want a little to go a long way: I see a lot of folks who still think about DEI work as a project or task or something that they can invest in for one-time projects or services. They want a fraction of work to go a long way, versus understanding it as something that must be deeply embedded into all parts of the organization, which requires constant, unrelenting work over a very long period of time. There is no endpoint that you arrive at and then get to stop. Instead, it’s a journey that requires consistent work and constant re-investment.   

 

Everyone will be committed: There are inevitably going to be some employees who are not deeply committed to this work. At best, they realize they are not aligned around values and find means to transition or part ways amicably. At worst, this kind of employee actively disrupts progress and causes harm to others. Not everyone will want to join you on this journey and that’s okay. But it’s not okay to let one or a couple of folks cause continuous harm, compromise your values around DEI, and stop the organization from moving forward with DEI efforts. 

 

Things don’t need to change that much: When I talk about equity work being deeply embedded into the fabric of an organization, that means change is going to require everyone to do almost everything differently. This work often requires big and small changes to the day-to-day operations, decision-making processes, organizational culture, service delivery, etc. For example, hiring processes may take longer in order to develop a recruitment plan to reach communities that you haven’t in the past, or to ensure that you have an inclusive hiring committee and a process that is actively mitigating implicit bias. Your whole hiring process might need to change, which will take more time, energy, and resources. Still, equity should change how you do your work – it’s about the process and the outcome.” –Emily Shamsid-Deen, ESD Consulting

 

“Clients sometimes think that you [a DEI consultant] will be able to come into the organization and fix everything. They think that DEI work is like waving a magic wand that will allow you to identify and uproot any issues that the company is having. What they often neglect to realize is that the company is made up of people, and the people will also have to be a part of the work. One unrealistic expectation is that information alone is enough to change a culture. When the DEI consultant lets the company know that this is a multi-layer change that will have to happen and that will require ongoing work, investment, and monitoring by someone who has the skill set to identify problems early, they are often shocked and dismayed. As a consultant, it is important to manage those expectations in early conversations so clients are not surprised when your work with them doesn’t magically fix every systemic problem that existed before you entered the door.”–Lisa Xochitl Vallejos, Ph.D., Dr. Lisa Xochitl Vallejos Consulting

 

“Clients often have some unrealistic expectations about doing this work. Most often, they think that it’s going to be a quick fix, or it’s going to be easy, or they’re not going to have to do anything on their end, as though the workshop itself will handle everything.  This is simply not the case. The workshop helps to provide the foundation for the conversations to happen and the work to happen under the leadership of the organization. So if the leadership is not on board with doing the work with fidelity and dedicating the time for this type of transformational change on a systemic level for their organization, then it’s simply not going to happen. It’s going to be a check-box. And that is often easy to see from the way that it is scheduled, to who attends, to how they attend, and their level of engagement. It is unrealistic to think that you can do one or two workshops and absolutely have a culture that’s rooted in inclusion. It simply doesn’t work that way.” Tovi C. Scruggs-Hussein, Tici’ess

 

  1. How are you taking care of yourself while on the front lines of this work?

“I’m still figuring this out and it’s ever-evolving as I continue to work on listening deeply to myself. The narrative around self-care has often been limited to bubble baths and long walks, both of which I’m sure people find joy and solace in, but I’ve been trying to think about self-care from a self and systems perspective. For self, I try to acknowledge the distinctions between when I need to disconnect/decompress, relax, tend to my own wellness/health, and/or fill up my cup. My recent noticing is that I tend to lean on disconnecting and relaxing, mostly because it requires less effort. So now I’m focusing on wellness and engaging in activities that actually fill me up, rather than leave me feeling depleted. From a systems perspective, I really think about the way my days are structured and work hard to have clear boundaries on my calendar. For example, I’m specific about the days I’m available for face-to-face client work. I also hold time before and after I facilitate a training to ensure that I have adequate space to get grounded before the training starts, and also that I have space after the training to breathe and decompress before I head into another meeting. I’m also working on carving out quarterly rest days, and I take all of December off from client work. I use that time to do my annual strategic planning (shoutout to Goal Digger), work on my business, do research, and most importantly, to rest and spend time with family. That way I can start the new year feeling full and ready, not depleted and tired. This work absolutely can take a toll and I’m trying my best to learn how to listen to myself better and honor whatever I hear.”–Emily Shamsid-Deen, ESD Consulting

 

“I have become unapologetic about claiming spaciousness in my life to take care of myself in this work. Several years ago, I learned that leading for equity and doing this work is a lifestyle. It’s not a job. It is absolutely a lifestyle. And with the lifestyle of doing this work, it means that I have to be heavily boundaried about my time and cautious not to overschedule myself. Cautious not to overload myself. I need space to heal from the trainings that I do and from re-traumatizing myself through this challenging work of helping mainly white people to heal from racism. It is challenging on the psyche and it’s challenging on the spirit. And so I do several things like taking salt baths, spending time in nature, massages, weekend retreats, and unplugging from technology and social media. I also have a very dedicated meditation practice that I know has sustained me without a doubt for the last 30 years. My strategies of how I sustain myself in this work may not be for everyone. However, they definitely work for me and having the mindset of knowing that this work is a lifestyle really changed the game for me.” Tovi C. Scruggs-Hussein, Tici’ess

 

Makisha Boothe

Makisha is Head Business Coach and founder of Sistahbiz Global Network. She specializes in rapid improvement and innovation, and helps women with business startup and design.

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